Martin Bright

Still Looking for the Clear Blue Water?

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With the publication of the Labour and Conservative manifestos we should now have some idea of the real differences between the two largest parties. But I am more struck by the similarities. I know we are supposed to believe that Labour is the party of the enabling state, but it chose to emphasise how it would enable the individual during its manifesto launch, just as the Tories did. For the Tories' Big Society read Labour's "mutualisation". There is not as much difference as the politicians would have you believe. Both policies are born out of a simple, pragmatic realisation that the state will not have the cash to intervene even if it wanted to.

Both parties are right to encourage voluntarism, mutualisation and cooperatives -- although they would do well to think of less daunting language with which to express these concepts.

And there are serious problems here. It is not cynical to ask what happens if no one turns up to volunteer, set up new schools or take on the functions of the state. My experience of trying to do just that over the past year suggests that dealing with the practicalities of offering to help can be utterly soul-destroying.

Speaking on Newsnight, Richard Reeves of Demos was absolutely right to say that it is at precisely the points where society is most "broken" that it is most unlikely to find armies of volunteers. 

All that said, devolving power to the individual is an exciting proposition, however cynical the reasons may be for politicians to offer to give it up.

The real question will be who can be most convincing in selling this oldest of new ideas to the British public. For this to work it will need to look more than just a confection created to get the citizen to to step in where the state can no longer afford to go.